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Stephen Jardine: Quirky Khoo’s French farce

Making TV cookery shows used to be easy. All you needed was a chef, a kitchen and some recipes for lamb hotpot and baked alaska. Back then, it was all about the food.

Then came the big-name chefs who brought a bit of personality. Over the past ten years a generation has grown up on the wisdom of Jamie, Gordon and Nigella.

Now it’s time for something new. TV producers are on the hunt for the next generation of television cooks, and this time the emphasis is on finding something different. So we have the devilishly handsome Fabulous Baker Boys, former fashion model Lorraine Pascale and the new queen of quirk, Rachel Khoo.

Rachel lives in a tiny apartment in Paris. We know this because she repeats that fact every few minutes. She dresses in a kooky Fifties-style and is generally as cute as a button. The show is beautifully shot and Paris has never looked better, full of bustling cafés and Parisians not being grumpy at all.

Rachel’s speciality is making French food more accessible. So we had a deconstructed coq au vin on a skewer and a croque madame turned into finger food.

She says that Paris is a cosmopolitan city where food cultures mix and share; anything is possible. TV producers love to hear that sort of thing because it reinforces happy notions of a cultural melting pot. Sometimes the truth gets in the way of a good story, however.

I lived in Paris for a couple of years, and it is one of the most culinary conservative cities in the world. Parisians will argue for an hour over which boulangerie produces the best baguette. Anything new and different is subjected to forensic scrutiny – and then snubbed.

When a fancy new cheese shop opened in the street market near my apartment, the locals peered inside, sniffed and returned to the fetid surroundings of the long-established fromagerie. Rumour had it that the newcomer didn’t stock Epoisses au Marc de Bourgogne. It lasted six months.

The idea that a colonial past in Africa has left France with exotic and adventurous tastes is laudable, but at the same time laughable. The whole fusion- food revolution simply passed France by. The country hangs on to a style of cooking that has barely changed in a generation. Imagine a French restaurant, and you think of the same place your parents did. And the same food – salad niçoise, magret de canard, crème brûlée and oeufs flottantes. You change them at your peril.

The truth is, no-one will ever cook French food as good as Maman did. So Rachel has her work cut out. The real test will come if her series is picked up by a French broadcaster. Her short-cut approach might be the change that nation needs. More likely, it will be lost in translation.

 

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